| August 4, 2010 4:11 pm

Slaves Packed Below DecksIn hindsight, it is easy to believe that great events had an inevitably about them.  After all, it was destined that slavery would be abolished, Germany would lose to the allies during World War II and that Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Struggle would win equal rights for all Americans.  After all, slavery was wrong, Hitler was evil, and deep-seated racism was destroying the social fabric of America.  Right?


Such historical determinism ignores the significant struggles required to convince a community that a particular practice is wrong and then drive them to do something about it.  If the allies had done nothing about Hitler, or if Martin Luther King hadn’t spoken, organize and marched; modern society would look quite different from the way it does now.

Which all underscores the fact that propaganda has gotten a bum rap, as of late.  As seen in the case of the abolitionists, the struggle against Nazism and the Civil Rights Cause, propaganda is a necessary form of communication.  It’s one of the most effective tools for influencing the attitude of a community over time.

In fact, propaganda is little more than communications tool and is hardly nefarious.  (Though it can certainly be abused, just as statistical/scientific reporting can also be used to confuse and mislead.)  A good piece of propaganda tells a story in an effective manner or presents information within an appropriate context.  The difference between propaganda and impartial reporting is that propaganda uses arguments, evidence, pleas to emotion and opinion to influence an audience.

Abolitionists, Precision Drawings and Propaganda

Over the past few days, I’ve been looking into one very interesting piece of anti-slavery propaganda.  In his latest book, Beautiful Evidence, Edward Tufte publishes a schematic of a slave ship.  It’s chronicles, in gruesome accuracy, the close confines of the Vigilante, a French slaver ship captured in 1823 by the British Navy.

Slave Decks of the Vigilante (1823)

First appearing in a tract for the Religious Society of Friends, a Quaker group, this illustration shows how human beings were turned into anonymous commodities. This is how Edward Tufte describes it:

Human bodies count out the numbers, increased in turn by the double layer of people shown in [the] elevation view … Men were sorted and ordered by size, shackled in pairs; women gathered at left adjacent to the vast Captain’s and wine lockers; and fierce microeconomic optimization in packing a cargo of 227 men and women 120 women … These conditions led to catastrophic death rates among all those it took to yield the 12,000,000 to 20,000,000 slaves eventually imported into America … This engraving has a straightforward quality and precision that indicates the ship was examined carefully, which ads credibility to the image [1].

The careful precision in the image and the attention to detail makes it disturbing in a way that more romantic or natural representations do not; and this was tremendously important.  At the time that the pamphlet was published, there was no consensus on slavery in America or Europe.  Even amongst anti-slavery groups, such as the Religious Society of Friends, people were still trying to figure out what should be done about it [2].  The Society had obtained a minor victory by outlawing the trafficking of slaves in British controlled sea lanes, but that had hardly stopped the practice.

Which is why propaganda, such as the illustration of the Vigilante and the accompanying tract [3], were prepared.  Such illustrations had a very specific purpose: they were used to attack the techniques that slavers used to transport Africans to North America.  They showed the tight confines,and the the other methods meant to prevent the slaves from rebelling or choosing suicide.  Within the text of the pamphlets, then, the authors described how these conditions led to disease, murder, starvation, suicide, and asphyxiation.  They then used every rhetorical device, scriptural argument and relevant fact at their disposal to make the case that such practices were wrong; and the authors of such tracts were effective.

The images and text were convinced people that the practice of transporting human beings (if not the institution of slavery itself) was morally abhorrent and wrong.  It’s also one reason why illustrations, such as that of the Vigilante were very common.

You see, the Vigilante drawing was hardly the first such diagram which showed the layout of a slaver’s galley.  Nor was it the first to use a precision style.  A quick search of Google Images turns up dozens of examples from the late 18th century through the mid 19th century.  In some ways, the layout of these diagrams achieved its own strange standardization.  Look at how similar the elevation views are, for example; or how almost identical the African men and women are in the schematics.


Navire Negrier

Slaver Galley - Schematic

Navire negrier (detail)

Navire negrier (schematic)

If you look closely at the propaganda and the actions of the Society of Friends, you can see a clever and sustained effort to combat evil.  Slavery had been part of human civilization since its beginning, and wasn’t going to be abolished overnight.  As a result, the Society of Friends didn’t start by trying to destroy the institution outright.  They started by assaulting easier targets, such as the slave trade.  From there, they used a combination of precision and romantic illustration in conjunction with narrative and moral argument to slowly erode public support.  It took a very long time [4], but it was also very successful.

Which just goes to show, propaganda can be positive as well as negative.  It also demonstrates that a careful and impartial rendering of facts can be just as effective as an appeal to emotion.


  1. See Tufte E., Beautiful Evidence, page 22.
  2. Religious Society of Friends, “Case of the Vigilante, a Ship Employed in the Slave trade; with Some Reflections on That Traffice” (Harvey Darton and Company, 1823).
  3. Miles Mark Fisher, “Friends of Humanity: A Quaker Anti-Slavery Influence,” Church History 4, no. 3 (September 1935): 187-202.
  4. H. J. Cadbury, “Another Early Quaker Anti-Slavery Document,” The Journal of Negro History 27, no. 2 (April 1942): 210-215.


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